Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Dover beachhead: Another esteemed quartet stakes a claim on late Beethoven

Completing its Beethoven cycle for Cedille Records, the Dover Quartet has put a seal on its excellent

Dover Quartet concludes its three-volume Beethoven journey for Cedille.

permanent accomplishment so far. "Volume 3: The Late Quartets" brings its collection of Ludwig van Beethoven's 16 to a stunning conclusion.

The Dover's manner with the twelfth through fifteenth quartets, plus the "Great Fugue" (Grosse Fuge), is distinguished by pervasive lyricism, though the recurring tumult and wealth of surprises are not scanted.

 One commentator has described the slow movement of Op. 132 as a demonstration of "how slow you can ride a bike without falling off." The Dover meets that difficult standard with the self-possession of star athletes. Violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, and cellist Camden Shaw illustrate both their precise coordination of pace and the gracefulness of every expressive gesture. As a result, the quartets' lengthiest movement doesn't drift into tedium: Heiliger Dankgesang  is just as spiritually lofty as its title suggests.

In the Grosse Fuge, the thick underbrush of Beethoven's writing is made into a clear pathway without attempting to make light of all the machete hacking required to get through it all cohesively.

There is always balance in voicing, resembling a fine chamber choir, as in the maestoso introduction to op. 127. The score's call for "molto cantabile" in the second movement adheres to the demand for a singing quality, but the chromatic passages are never sentimentalized.

In another lyrical highlight, the "Cavatina" movement of op. 130, good control of vibrato allows the playing to throb with passion without coming close to smearing the makeup. 

The vast expressive variety of these quartets gets due consideration. At the same time, the Dover impresses its personality on the music at every turn. It is expressively engaged, but avoids getting bogged down in overliteral pursuit of the composer's demands on the page. 

For Beethoven in his total deafness, "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
 are sweeter" (as John Keats asserted in his "Ode on a Grecian Urn"). This ensemble's performances acknowledge the strange beauty of that assertion while proclaiming the ineffable sweetness and lifelike energy of what we hear on these three discs.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Steel City pianist pays tribute to a forebear on 'Tone Paintings: The Music of Dodo Marmarosa'

Craig Davis, a current fixture as a jazz pianist in his native Pittsburgh, works with the veteran bass-drums

"Tone Paintings" erects a memorial.

team of John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton to recall the inspired melody-rich bebop style of Michael "Dodo" Marmarosa on a new release from the Steel City label MCG Jazz.

"Tone Paintings" takes its title from a modernist composition of Marmorosa that receives an attractive interpretation here from the trio. There are 11 tracks in all, indicative of the creative range of a pianist whose notable early career ended in obscurity. 

Davis made a personal discovery of Marmarosa while exploring Pittsburgh's rich heritage in jazz pianists, including Mary Lou Williams, Errol Garner, Ahmad Jamal and Billy Strayhorn. "Here's this guy who was boppin' with Bird and he was pushing the envelope at the same time," Davis said of the pianist who played with Charlie Parker and others in advancing jazz in the most appealing way in the 1940s.

Two adjacent tracks suggest some of the Marmarosa range sympathetically absorbed by Davis and his sidemen.  The reflective title piece is followed by the peppy "Battle of the Balcony Jive." Davis' fleet manner works hand in glove with the Clayton-Hamilton team. The drummer's often feathery-light touch allows also for brisk flights of fancy, and the bassist's command of the mainstream idiom on his instrument is absolute.

Evenly divided contributions animate the one Davis original, "A Ditty for Dodo." It's a ballad, with an  introspective cast similar to the disc-closer, "Dodo's Lament." As usual in this kind of piece, Hamilton shows he's a master of brushes. 

Also notable is the suave "Gary Departs," over which the trio simply glides like vintage Fred and Ginger. "Compadoo" is a deft contrafact on an old song that's a favorite for such treatment, "Sweet Georgia Brown." The saluted bop pianist's essential style is celebrated in the contrasting fashion that two of his titles suggest: "Dodo's Bounce" and "Dodo's Blues."

All told, this is a tribute album that falls within such releases without ossified museum reverence. But still, the achievement of Marmarosa is worth the museum niche it gets here.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Digging through lightness: Thomas Linger plays third Premiere Series trio sets for APA

It could be daring to say it, but I sense there's both a wink and a bit of self-revelation behind the original

Thomas Linger worked with Kenny Phelps and Nick Tucker.

tune Thomas Linger played during his second set Saturday night at the Jazz Kitchen: "Mercurial Behemoth" he called it, and it was tacked on to the sincere charm of the standard "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." 

As finalist in the 2023 American Pianists Awards, Linger was presented in a trio evening in American Pianists Association's Premiere Series. There are two more finalists to hear after the turn of the year, culminating in two evenings of finals in April. The club setting, with just bass and drums in accompaniment, tests young jazz pianists in the most likely setting for much of their careers.

Linger, a North Carolinian now living in New York City and well-launched there on his own, displayed his experience, his audience rapport, his creativity — all qualities that he blended well in the way he constructed his second set. With Ray Noble's chestnut "Cherokee," he chose his solo spot well, as capable sidemen Nick Tucker, bass, and Kenny Phelps, drums, left the stage, returning to help him cap the set with Cole Porter's "I Love You" and Thelonious Monk's "Well You Needn't."

His style incorporates a ton of filigree. In his tender version of the Porter song, he filled the bridge with harplike swirls. He had given his right hand free rein from the start in an original titled "Crystal Cave." In his free-floating solo on George Shearing's "She," he juxtaposed direct and ornamented playing, folding in greater intensity in rapport with Phelps' drums. A Nick Tucker solo kept the ballad connection alive.

Phelps' drive was so infectious in McCoy Tyner's "Inception" that I got to thinking it would be a cryin' shame if the drummer didn't get a solo on this one. And he did, and it was dynamic. Linger gave plenty of opportunity for his local sidemen to shine, and both took advantage on a fast blues called "Blues Inside Out," by George Coleman. That piece showed a more abstract take on the form, contrasted with what preceded it, the Ellington romp "Things Ain't What They Used to Be." Linger teased the audience with a long, pedaled introduction and several generic blues choruses before stating the theme sotto voce and continuing in that vein.

He showed off the vigor of his left hand with consistent bass emphasis in "Cherokee," the set's one unaccompanied piece. It was a novel approach that was also applied to  "Well You Needn't," which he harmonized differently from Monk while preserving  the essence of the piece. Phelps showed his originality, varying his tumultuous turns in exchanges with the pianist by ending with a witty few measures that evoked Monk's idiosyncratic sense of humor. He's the most musical drummer around.

I was struck by the original Linger played just before "Cherokee." I'm convinced that "Sans Au Revoir," taken at a relaxed Latin tempo, is based on "St. James Infirmary." I could be wrong, but I'm not sure I was merely reminded of that ancient standard. I think Linger used the old tune's blues structure, melodic arc and harmonic progression in the well-established manner of a contrafact, as such borrowings are known and have been common since the bebop era more than 70 years ago. (The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz lists more than two dozen contrafacts for "Cherokee" alone; "I Got Rhythm" is the all-time champ.)

I don't believe I've heard "St. James Infirmary" — live or on a recording — since I wrote about it in May 2013, when this blog was a babe. The Red Hot Whiskey Sippers, led by Rich Dole and Bill Lancton, played it at the club's outdoor "shrimp boil." In my posted review, I went on a bit about the song as a lament that oddly validates the lamenter, quoting its marvelous second verse:  

Let her go, let her go, God bless her,
Wherever she may be;
She can look this wide world over,
She'll never find a sweet man like me.

That's sort of a "sans au revoir," and French is of course a traditional tongue in New Orleans, where "St. James Infirmary" may have been born. Am I letting my imagination run away with me? Maybe, but I have to thank or blame Thomas Linger for that. He could indeed be a "mercurial behemoth." He got me into personal blog archaeology going back nearly seventeen hundred posts ago! As with most good jazz musicians, his performances promise to excavate the past and build for the future.

[Photos by Rob Ambrose]




Saturday, December 3, 2022

Scrooge reinvents himself once again, dashing through the snow at IRT


Scrooge upbraids his clerk, Bob Cratchit.

For the first time in four years I've seen Indiana Repertory Theatre's production of "A Christmas Carol," as adapted by Tom Haas from Charles Dickens' novella, I've sensed a show chastened by the pandemic.

I'm allowing for having projected personal feelings of having come through a trying historical episode onto the show. The robustness of the re-creation remains to a large degree, but the stage action feels starker this time around, and the cast is smaller. The bitter side of the fantasy leaves its imprint, despite the famous happy ending, in which the habitual skinflint and misanthrope becomes a one-man source of Christmas cheer in merry old, uncharacteristically snow-covered London.

Janet Allen directs the show in her last season as IRT's artistic director. And the company itself is observing another milestone, its golden anniversary, in 2022-23. For me, this version conveys the sense that the world has been through something that has dispelled all illusion. The action is more focused toward downstage, with lighting that aims to put the show's fantastic elements in their place as departures from the defining light of real life.

For the second time but a first for me, Rob Johansen is cast as Ebenezer Scrooge, bringing his gift for extravagant facial and physical acting to the role. This Scrooge presents us with a Victorian model of the Type A personality: He's not just mean, he's mean out of wound-up conviction and habit — a menace of executive control that Dickens would later maximize as Gradgrind in "Hard Times."

The Cratchit family unwittingly enlightens Scrooge.

Scrooge's definitive  "Bah, humbug!" takes its place along a spectrum of dismissiveness toward any appeals to his sense of charity or other seasonal uplift. What makes the characterization work so well, at least the way I saw it Friday night, is that his sudden buoyancy after three disturbing, time-traveling dreams has the same nervous energy as the aging crank he has left behind him. You can see the new Scrooge as the archetype of the Victorian reformer, an apostle of social progress.

Ryan Artzberger, a  Scrooge in many IRT productions dating back to 2010, is now the severely dominated clerk Bob Cratchit. He is the saintly head of a poor family, exemplifying the questionable blessedness of poverty. But of course, that's no great honor either, as Tevye reminds God in "Fiddler on the Roof." Mrs. Cratchit represents that withering viewpoint in "A Christmas Carol" in the vivid performance of Jennifer Johansen.

 Artzberger and Johansen share with several other cast members the duties of several lesser roles each. (With assistance from the show's sound design, Artzberger is also a crucial warning presence as Marley's Ghost, the business-partner figure who triggers the parade of bad dreams that humble Scrooge.) 

Linda Pisano's costume designs reach their summit in the dazzling appearance of Maria Argentina

Representing the persistence of merriment: Sean Blake as Christmas Present

Souza as Christmas Past and Sean Blake as Christmas Present. Each acts as an illuminating guide to  the gradually aware, and sometimes reluctantly reminiscent, Scrooge as he surveys his regrettable past as well as the world in which he's fallen asleep, oblivious to its deep concerns. A hush settled over the audience particularly in the strained dialogue the old man witnesses between Young Scrooge (Elliot Sagay) and his crestfallen fiancee, Belle (Caroline Chu). 

The production sustains its customary flow with the smooth use of trapdoors on the raked stage and the deft textural variety lent by narrative choral speaking yielding to dialogue and back. Haas' skill in preserving Dickens' narrative voice while the story moves forward in stage action continues to be valid. From when we first hear that Marley was "as dead as a doornail, to begin with," we are sensitized to a masterpiece that drives home obvious as well as subtle truths. The permanence of myth is no accident, as IRT is appropriately keen to remind us every year with  "A Christmas Carol."

[Photos by Zach Rosing]



Sunday, November 27, 2022

-The Rise and Fall of Holly Fudge' teaches that sweets to the sweet are always in season

 A discarded euphemism of disappointment and annoyed surprise, once heard among old folks, runs: "Oh fudge!" 

Mother-daughter bond renewed across identity issues.

That usage could serve as a mantra for Phoenix Theatre's new show, "The Rise and Fall of Holly Fudge." Set in 2020, it's a holiday contraption that vibrates against the rumble of the pandemic and social upheaval, as well as evolving notions of personal identity and its right to thrive.

The old-fashioned expletive has the right muttered tones of evasion with which the settled older generation confronts change. Carol, the baby-boomer lead character in Trista Baldwin's contemporary Christmas comedy, finds it necessary to hold on to the high local reputation of the confection she calls "Holly Fudge." Her spacious living room is decorated to the nines for the season, from snow globes to a dazzling tree (upstage center in Lyndsey Lyddan's set for the Phoenix production).

The candy's blue-ribbon status must be maintained as Carol gets ready for a rare visit from her daughter, after whom she's named the fudge. That turns out to be an issue for Holly, who has moved away from her East Coast hometown to Seattle. The city is associated in her mother's mind with civil unrest in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing and the growth of Black Lives Matter. 

The ensuing nationwide controversy has even staked out a spot across the street, drawing a small group of daily demonstrators. That's the only context Carol has to put on her daughter's current identity; communication between the two is freighted with the difficulty of her husband's abandonment of the family long ago. This reunion's big surprise is the show's '"guess-who's-coming-to-dinner" twist, as Holly arrives with Jordan, her female lover, a coming-out test of her mother's tolerance. To top it off, Carol's good friend and neighbor Chris seems to be launching a rivalry in the homemade Christmas sweets department. Oh fudge, indeed!

Daniella Wheelock directs the Phoenix production with an  evident surplus of whole-hearted energy, summed up in a cast led by Milicent Wright as Carol, reprising her role in the original production (Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell, Massachusetts). Wright's well-known range of overflowing emotion, ranging from joy through confusion into anger and sadness, is applied well to this role. Her opening-night performance Saturday set a tone poised with comical friction against the characters played by Terra McFarland (Holly), Jaddy Ciucci (Jordan) and Emily Ristine (Chris).

Holly seemed underplayed in the first act, but that may have been one plausible way to interpret the daughter's deep uncertainty as to the best way to convey her new life and set the relationship with her mother on a new footing. After intermission, McFarland's performance grew in definition as both lover and daughter.

Ciucci projected a tempered brashness, her Jordan working to help Holly put across the identity she is

Yule-minded Mom adjusts to daughter's relationship.

eager to have Carol accept and embrace. Obstacles to that goal are formidable, and the lovers split temporarily, with Jordan and Chris, who has quarreled with the jealous Carol over holiday sweets, in exile outside, sharing a joint. That's the show's funniest scene, as the two women bond while getting high and wrestling emotionally with both seasonal tradition and damaged personal relationships. Ristine in particular ascends to the heights of ridiculous here.

There's an earlier scene, even more explosive, which ends the first act. The playwright indulges her interest in anarchic situation comedy with a food fight between Carol and Chris involving hurled and smeared fudge. We are in the tradition of untenable conflict turning into messy slapstick, summed up 70 years ago on TV by Lucy and Ethel in the candy factory on "I Love Lucy."

The sit-com comparison brings up a certain mechanical quality to entrances and exits in the script. Scenes sweep into view or fade quickly in the manner of television quick cuts. It's obvious that the rhythms of screen comedy were a huge influence in the way the playwright tells her story.

I found a few problems with the pace and technical adroitness of the show, some of which are not the playwright's fault. Why does Carol fling open the front door a few moments before Jordan and Holly appear? Is she clairvoyant? Why has Holly, who designs jewelry on the side, traveled home wearing severely distressed jeans? (Maybe noticing that contrast indicates some generational cluelessness on my part.) And then, though she's on vacation from her reporting job, at one point she goes across the street inappropriately dressed to interview the demonstrators: just irrepressible curiosity applied off-duty? 

Why do snowballs hitting the house sound like cannon shots? The sound would already be unnerving to Carol at a more plausible volume. At the other extreme, the portable music that Carol asks Holly to turn down can hardly be heard. That seems extremely fussy even for a mother as on-edge as Carol.

Finally, and I must tread softly here: Though the script suggests that Carol and Chris are roughly contemporaries, thus indicating that both their friendship and their rivalry lie within a shared peer group, Chris looks significantly younger than Carol. The Zoom fitness class that Chris leads and Carol attempts to follow is a funny scene that may be intended to signal an age difference, But it can also be explained by the fact that fitness is Chris's thing, while Carol is a novice when it comes to vigorous exercise. OK: I'm now gingerly putting that present back under the tree.

"The Rise and Fall of Holly Fudge" has many moments as dazzling and beguiling as the delight of opening a box full of gift candy. It is overall cheerful, sometimes uproariously so, despite the serious conflicts that crop up. It ends (this can hardly be a spoiler, given the season) on a note of reconciliation, even uplift. But it's also chock full of social and cultural commentary (oh, Jordan is Jewish, by the way) and the kind of pervasive busyness that we are all subject to around the holidays. 

Oh fudge! Just help yourself. 

[Photos by IndyGhostLight]



Monday, November 21, 2022

Terell Stafford at the Jazz Kitchen: Veteran trumpet maestro sits in with Indianapolis Jazz Collective

Terell Stafford and Indianapolis Jazz Collective in action

The Indianapolis Jazz Collective, an all-star local band linked to and continually inspiring support by

the Indianapolis Jazz Foundation, has a firm track record of working well with guest musicians. That tradition expanded with distinction Sunday night at the Jazz Kitchen, with trumpeter Terell Stafford filling out the front line along with IJF artistic and education director Rob Dixon on tenor sax.

The rhythm section was no slouch in imparting star quality: Steve Allee, piano; Nick Tucker, bass; Kenny Phelps, drums. The first set lit the kindling with "Time to Let Go," a Stafford original and the title piece on his recorded debut as a leader. That was in 1995, and since then Stafford has added distinction to his resume as an educator. He directs jazz studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, whose stature in the music's history he's boosted through the Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra, founded in 2013.

Stafford's long history as a sideman comes through even when he's the main attraction. Throughout the set, he was  unfailingly collegial, smiling approvingly at others' solo highlights and applauding them as he cradled his trumpet. 

With the horn to his lips, he blazes up frequently, but without promiscuous stabbing toward inevitably cracked tones in the high register. He flecks his solos with humorous touches: half-valving and growling in the ancient  tradition of Rex Stewart, but somewhat less obvious about it than the inimitable Clark Terry. His cheeks puff out in the Dizzy Gillespie manner, but unlike that bop icon, he saves his sense of humor for his playing, and deploys it scrupulously. 

Terell Stafford lent brilliance here.

Dixon gave him a notable ballad feature, on "Old Folks," then sat out. The trumpeter's sweet account built in a great arc through his solo, with a blue tinge coloring it at length. Stafford's long solo cadenza at the end had moments of fun that drew laughter from the capacity audience. 

The saxophonist introduced "One Hundred," a tune he wrote that features a strong back beat and was launched by a Phelps solo, by noting the planned IJF centennial celebrations in honor of Indianapolis native Wes Montgomery next year. Then Dixon admitted it was a stretch to link that event to that piece.

 The commentary was a bit of a puzzle, as was his digression into New York's Village Vanguard, where Stafford plays in the traditional Monday night big band. No, the fabled club is not also celebrating its hundredth birthday next year, as near as I can determine: It's 87 years old, which is jaw-dropping enough for a jazz nightspot. I'll be grateful if I can acknowledge the actual VV centennial milestone in 2035. (I was born a few miles to the north just a decade into the Vanguard's history.)

Allee's right hand took flight in his solo on Stafford's "Favor." After the band played the out-chorus,  Tucker contributed his most impressive solo of the set before the band set a calming seal upon the piece. As good as Allee's comping is, I sort of missed touches  of the Hammond B-3 in Mike Clark's "Lucky No. 7," though I have no idea if organ was called for in the original. The pianist's solo proved fully adequate to the piece, however, which evoked the classic Blue Note era and trumpeters like Lee Morgan. Whatever the music's nods to tradition, Stafford inspired the band to put its personal stamp on it and display the enduring viability of small-group acoustic jazz as 2022 wanes. 

[Group photo from Sunday performance by Rob Ambrose]


Sunday, November 20, 2022

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra offers sesquicentennial tribute to Vaughan Williams

With one of England's greatest composers being widely celebrated this year on his 150th birth anniversary, the

Soloists Gerber, Zuber, and Muston for Martin's Petite Symphonie Concertante

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra  on Saturday night presented a program with different aspects of the composer represented in both halves.

Ralph Vaughan Williams' distinctiveness as a rare English master first became apparent in 1910 with Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and his interest in the past of English music also encompassed vernacular styles, which "The Running Set" represented right after intermission.

The latter piece, a straightforward evocation of folk-dance tunes, was a pleasurable rouser in the bright, balanced acoustics of the Schrott Center for the Arts at Butler University. It brought the excellent ICO winds into play for the first time in the concert. Their role was mainly filling out the tone colors of music not designed for individuation. That prismatic focus was to come in the concert finale, Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 99 in E-flat major.

Part of virtually the greatest impresario triumph in music history, this symphony was one of a dozen commissioned by J.P. Salomon to be introduced by the Austrian composer in his London sojourn of 1794 and 1795. Music director Matthew Kraemer led a sparkling account of No. 99. Only the violins' entrance in the Vivace assai after the first movement's poised introduction was a shade untidy. 

The work's most notable feature is the timbral variety the wind  instruments lend to the score. Haydn, entering old age according to the norm of his time, was feeling his oats with Salomon's multifaceted assignment. In this work, the innovation in orchestral layout is the latecomer clarinet, added to the wind ensemble of flute, oboe, bassoon, horn, and trumpet. Timpani give a sense of occasion to the piece.

But the work stands out even among the excellent set of London symphonies for its wit and its well-integrated collection of surprises. The finale is continually amazing, using all of Haydn's mature skills in counterpoint, suspense, healthy buoyancy and integration of all materials. The third-movement Menuetto is a gem  of his sensitivity to tone color.

Especially in the last movement, wind instruments poke through delightfully, just as children may contribute germanely and precociously to lively adult conversations around this week's Thanksgiving tables (with luck!).

At its climax, Haydn's finale can bear comparison with its much-admired counterpart in Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony. The strands subject to Haydn's weaving skills are shorter than his younger contemporary's, and thus the complexity is less advanced. But the compositional sophistication in the adolescence of the symphonic form is certainly on the same exalted level.

In the first half, the marquee event was a rare performance of "Petite Symphonie Concertante" by the 20th-century Swiss composer Frank Martin. It's probably not often a conductor can put onstage musicians who are adept concerto partners on the harp, the harpsichord, and the piano. Kraemer selected ICO member Wendy Muston, frequent ICO collaborator Thomas Gerber, and American Pianists Association laureate Eric Zuber, respectively. They were an exemplary team and conscientious interpreters of their unique roles.

In three movements, with a particularly detailed and sensitive Adagio treating the soloists in isolation, Martin displays his idiosyncratic approach to atonal composition. It's ingratiating, never thorny, yet naturally piquant. In this performance, the solo  instruments were placed wisely to keep balances clear; I felt fortunate to be sitting closest to Gerber among the three, so that the harpsichord's less penetrating quality was not shadowed by his fellow soloists or the orchestra. I'm guessing there was next to nothing off-balance from other perspectives in this responsive hall. 

While probably there are few hungering for other triple concertos with such a set-up, it's easy to be grateful for this one, thanks to Saturday's performance.

The main Vaughan Williams salute was the imperishable Tallis Fantasia. The sacred origin of its theme pervaded the composer's detailed treatment of it for string ensemble. The contrast of textures stood out in the Schrott's duly celebrated environment. The string quartet to which  the composer gives judicious emphasis highlighted the richness of the ensemble sonority. The pacing that Kremer set blended warmth and dignity — qualities that showed Vaughan Williams at his best in the piece's blossoming climax.